2008 Cable describes the Russian prison system

Cable 08MOSCOW531 from February 2008 describes the Russian prison system. In contrast to other Western countries, the system is foremost focused on punishment, not rehabilitation, and while statisics are difficult to compare, produces a lower rate of recidivism. Recent prison riots, new prisoner shock tactics, and smuggled videos of prison mistreatment have highlighted the cruelties and corruption in the system. According to the Embassy ‘the insurmountable challenges posed by the physical and cultural nature of the prison system mean that efforts to improve conditions or to alter the character of the system from punishment to rehabilitation are likely to produce only superficial improvements.’

The Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments (FSIN), part of the Ministry of Justice, administers more than 700 Russian jails and prisons across the country (this cable does not address the military prison system operated by the Ministry of Defense). There are four levels of incarceration as prisoners move through the justice system: temporary police custody facilities for those held pending charges; pretrial detention facilities (SIZOs) for those charged with crimes; lower-security correctional labor colonies (ITKs); and high-security prisons for more dangerous prisoners and for those who violate the rules of ITKs.

The authorities use a two-tier system of administration. The prison officials and the guards protect the perimeter of the facilities and provide the upper layer of security, but then they elevate select prisoners to act as internal enforcers among the other prisoners. These elite prisoners receive privileges and protections in return for enforcing a brutal form of order within the prisons.

The low pay and low prestige of prison administrators and guards, combined with a lack of oversight and accountability, have created an abusive system rife with cruelty and corruption.

According to FSIN statistics, as of July, there were approximately 889,600 people in the custody of the criminal justice system, including 63,000 women and 12,100 juveniles. This rate of 630 prisoners per 100,000 citizens is second in the world only to the United States (702 per 100,000).The number of prisoners has increased in recent years. Compared to July 2005, the total number of prisoners has increased by 101,000 ( 13 percent), the number of women prisoners increased by 15,000 ( 31 percent), and the number of juvenile prisoners decreased by 2,400 (-17 percent).

During the last year, there have been scattered reports of uprisings in prisons, including a revolt and jailbreak at the youth prison in Togliatti (Samara Oblast).

The prison system incorporates Russia’s vast distances and harsh climate into the system of punishment. Although the law states that prisoners should not be incarcerated outside the region where they lived or were convicted unless local prisons are overcrowded, this rule is routinely disregarded.

Prison guards still rely heavily on traditional forms of violence and deprivation to maintain control. Solitary confinement for long periods (sometimes longer than one year) while illegal is reportedly used, and some isolation cells are too small for the inmate to fully stretch out lying down. In what Ponomarev said was a typical incident, he showed us a video filmed by a guard and sent anonymously to For Prisoners’ Rights. The video, since posted on YouTube, shows prison guards marching out prisoners in a Sverdlovsk Oblast prison past dogs. Some prisoners were then stripped to the waist, stretched out over tables, and then beaten with billy clubs by the guards. “This is routine behavior,” said Ponomarev, “what is different is that it was recorded.”

Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin told the Ambassador in a February 7 meeting (Ref B) that prison conditions were one of the most important issues for him, but that he had difficulty gaining unfettered access to the prisons and that prison authorities were the main obstacle he faced in addressing prisoners’ human rights complaints. Lukin said that the FSIN was slowly improving conditions, and that new construction fixed many of the problems of sanitation and overcrowding.

On February 22, a Moscow court acting on a complaint by FSIN Director Kalinin filed a suit against Ponomarev for defamation. The suit is based upon a November 2006 interview with Regnum.ru where Ponomarev called FSIN Director Kalinin the “author” of the system in which select prisoners enforce order and discipline on others. Ponomarev also described a network of 40 “torture prisons” and alleged that torture, beating, and rape (or the threat thereof) were used to extract confessions and control prisoners. The prosecutor’s complaint did not take issue with Ponomarev’s characterization of the system or the allegations of torture in the prisons, but focused instead on the fact that it was a Ministry of Justice decree that established the system, not Kalinin himself. If found guilty, Ponomarev faces up to three years of first-hand experience inside the prison system.


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